I sat in a room inside the massive Mandel Foundation building in Jerusalem where I was interviewed for their Leadership in Jewish Culture program.
I didn’t know that an hour-long conversation, that was supposed to be pleasant and friendly, would still make me feel nauseous two months later.
Firstly, I told them I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
It’s not something I keep a secret.
I told them I have ADHD
Everyone who knows me knows this about me. I’ve even written a series of articles about it, and am more than happy to help any adult or child who’s in distress.
“If you have ADHD, what makes you think the Mandel Educational Leadership Program is the right fit for you?”
The interviewer, who happens to be a trained psychologist, decided to give me a really hard time for having this disability.
“You do know that in our program you have to sit and learn texts for an entire day,” she said to me.
I replied that yes, I did know that.
“So, how do you think you’ll be able to sit in class all day? Maybe you should reconsider applying for our program,” she pressured me. She wouldn’t drop this issue and kept asking about it from different points of view. She asked me a number of times to reconsider applying for the program.
I was in complete shock.
To make a long story short: I wasn’t accepted to the Mandel Program for Leadership in Jewish Culture.
From the time I was a little kid, as a teen and into adulthood, I have dealt with having ADHD. I have had many interviews at institutions that didn’t accept me, and yet I have never felt so humiliated.
I went to three separate high schools. I was turned down by more than three high schools. Twice I was turned down by film school.
But at no point did anyone make me feel like a shmatta, a rag – like I was worthless.
THE SECOND interviewer was an Islam researcher, who has a PhD. He was supposedly a smart and liberal guy. And he made an effort to portray me as a racist.
He asked me to tell him my story, about being Jewish.
So, I told him I was born in the US, And that my family had been living in North America for four generations.
“I was a kid who was embarrassed about his Jewish American identity. I repressed it all. Then it all came pouring out when I was on shlichut (an emissary on a mission) in the US, doing outreach for Israel,” I explained.
I told them that my mission in life was to tell Israeli Jews about other Jews who are living all around the world – and specifically American Jews, from where my family comes, and who constitute the second-largest Jewish community in the world. “And what about Morocco, Turkey and Ethiopia?!? Aren’t they also part of the Jewish Diaspora?” asked the PhD doctor with a generous helping of cynicism and contempt.
“Of course,” I replied.
“Then why don’t you talk about those places? Why don’t you write about them?” he persisted.
“The truth is, I do write about them. And I’ve even visited many of these communities. It’s just that there aren’t many Jews living in these countries anymore, and you asked me to tell you my own personal story. I don’t have any roots in these other countries.”
But he was not satisfied with my reply.
I told him enthusiastically how connected I feel with the Jewish community in France, that I help olim who made aliyah from there with legislation and welfare issues, in an effort to somewhat placate their extremist political identification. He asked me what I like about them.
“In my opinion, the French Jewish community is very warm and inclusive,” I stated.
And that’s when the interviewer with a doctorate completely lost it.
“Are you saying they’re warm because they’re Mizrachi? Because their families come from North Africa?” he demanded, practically shouting at me. “Why do you say they are warm – that’s ridiculous! Why don’t you say that other communities are warm, too?” he asked me aggressively, berating me for being so racist and ignorant.
As if I had murdered the entire French Jewish population.
As if I had erased the entire Mizrachi Jewish heritage.
He didn’t really want to hear me talk.
He’d already decided from the get-go that I was a privileged Ashkenazi who used to write for a right-wing elitist newspaper (Makor Rishon) and now writes for an English-language Israeli newspaper with an international audience.
The process completely wore me down.
AFTER TELLING my neighbor who is part of the program about the interview, she recommended that I speak with someone else who works for the foundation. When I called, I was told that they would only be able to speak with me after the process had concluded.
I sent them the following message a month ago: “I wanted to tell you that if it’s okay, I’d like to speak with you about the interview I had for the Mandel program. There were a few not-so-pleasant moments, in my opinion. I vacillated about whether I should say something, and in the end, I decided it’s important that you know what was said (regardless of what you decide about my candidacy).”
I was told that they don’t talk about the acceptance process while it was still taking place.
Since then, I’ve received several phone calls from the program director, as well as from the director of the institute.
They apologized, saying that from one point of view, I was right, and from another point of view – during the interview process there are always people who get hurt.
But the two people who hurt and abused me haven’t yet approached me.
I’m not bitter. As I mentioned, I’ve failed to get accepted to many schools and programs during my lifetime.
I didn’t write about them, since everyone’s conduct was always appropriate and dignified.
SINCE I posted my story, I’ve received countless messages from other “Mandel victims.”
A man I don’t know wrote the following about his wife: “The interviewers made racist comments about her ethnicity, and laughed about her head covering and what she was wearing. She came home feeling like a broken vessel.”
From a friend who was accepted into their program, I received the following message: “Several years ago, at the Mandel Foundation, I was subjected to emotional abuse at a level I had never experienced in my entire life. Absolute humiliation. After I left the interview, I cried my eyes out.”
Another friend who was a Mandel fellow relayed to me the following: “Without knowing what your exact experience was, I can tell you that my experience as a Mandel fellow was extremely difficult and at times even humiliating. When I left, I had many complaints.”
The fact that you have lots of money, or have earned lots of degrees, does not mean that you have the right to treat people like trash.
That’s how I felt after the interview – and two months later, I still feel traumatized.
When the director of the institute suggested that I come to the institute for another visit, so I can get to know them, I almost fainted.
Why would I want to go back to a place where I was humiliated so badly?
There are good people at the Mandel Institute, and much good has come as a result of their programs. One such person is Chen Artzi Sror, the director of the program I was applying for, who for years has been urging me to apply.
Unlike the people who sat across the desk from me during the interview, I don’t view the world in black and white, with stereotypes and identity politics.
I have good friends who’ve worked at the Mandel Institute and good friends who’ve participated in this program.
I will continue empowering my own and others’ Jewish identity in any way I see fit, across all platforms and upon every stage. Not only have you not broken my will, you have made me desire even more strongly to spread my personal truth about the Jewish religion, world Jewry, learning disabilities and ADHD – and, most importantly, what it means to be a mensch.
Hold on; is it racist to use a word in Yiddish?
The Mandel Foundation released a response:
We would like to publicly apologize to Zvika Klein for what he experienced during the admission process for the Mandel Program for Leadership in Jewish Culture, following our private apology. As we told him privately, we are investigating the matter thoroughly and will continue to improve our admissions process in order to ensure that it is respectful and pleasant for all applicants.
Every year, more than 1,000 applicants are interviewed for the Mandel Foundation–Israel’s programs, and only about 200 are accepted.
We invest a great deal of thought into how we operate, both on the level of our individual programs and on the level of the Foundation as a whole. Professionalism, mutual respect, and taking responsibility are among our most important values. During the course of the thousands of hours we spend on candidate selection, we undoubtedly make mistakes. When mistakes happen, we take steps to rectify them. Our faculty, fellows, graduates, and manyapplicants from the past will attest to this. We believe that it is vital is for us to learn from our mistakes, draw the necessary conclusions, and move forward professionally. We are committed to learning from and correcting any mistake we make, whatever their origins may be, no matter how much time it takes.
As proof of this commitment: ever since we first heard Mr. Klein’s criticism, we have been investigating the affronts that he reported and have been working to learn from them, as part of an ongoing dialogue with him.
It is important to remember that an admissions process is by definition a complex and deeply personal process.
Every year, fellows from across Israeli society are accepted to the program, including fellows with ADHD. We will continue to work continuously to improve our admissions processes.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.